Election workers process absentee ballots for the primary elections in Portland City Hall on Friday. Credit: David Sharp / AP

Maine officials called on the state’s voters to use absentee ballots as much as possible during this week’s primary, and they have responded in overwhelming fashion.

Voters in the state had requested nearly 180,000 absentee ballots by July 8, according to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. That’s five times the number they requested before the busy 2018 primary, Dunlap said.

Maine’s primary is scheduled for Tuesday, and officials, including Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who is not facing re-election, have encouraged voters to consider using absentee ballots. Mills, Dunlap and others have cautioned voters that use of absentee ballots could be easier than attempting to vote at the polls, which will observe social distancing rules due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The state might not break the record for any election, which was set in 2008, when 244,000 sought to use absentee ballots in the general election. But voters have shown tremendous initiative in the weeks before the primary, Dunlap said.

“In the pandemic, we’ve been encouraging people to make use of absentee ballots. And the voters themselves, without encouragement, have taken that on,” he said.

Tuesday’s vote includes the Democratic primary for the right to run against Republican Sen. Susan Collins. It also includes a Republican primary to run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in the 2nd Congressional District. Both races are generating national attention because control of Congress is up for grabs in November.

It’s tough to gauge what total turnout will be like on primary day, because it depends how many people submit completed ballots, Dunlap said. Clerks in cities and towns said it’s also difficult to know how many people will still show up to vote on Tuesday in person.

Lewiston, the second largest city in Maine, has distributed more than 4,000 absentee ballots, said Kathy Montejo, the city clerk.

“If we don’t have a lot of voters in person on Tuesday it might be on par in total,” she said.

One thing that’s different this year is that voters can request absentee ballots right up until polls close at 8 p.m., creating the potential for some last-minute scrambling to process them.

For smaller towns, clerks will have to juggle serving as election warden at a polling place while also handling last-minute absentee ballots. In Bangor, absentee ballots are cast at City Hall while the polling stations are at the Cross Insurance Center.

In Portland, more than 17,000 ballots had been issued as of Friday, with more than 9,000 returned, said Melissa Cowie, elections administrator for the city. It was helpful that clerks will get an early start on processing them, she said.

Clerks were able to begin opening the envelopes and running them through voting machines on Friday, but they won’t be tallied until the polls close.

“I’m up for an adventure. I’m interested to see what this will look like by the end of it. It’s good preparation for November,” she said.

Story by Patrick Whittle and David Sharp.